David Atlee Phillips (right) and the composite sketch
of Antonio Veciana's "Maurice Bishop" (left)
An ex-CIA agent -- repeatedly accused in print of being implicated in the assassination of JFK -- raises the issue of journalistic due process. by David Atlee Phillips
Reproduced from the Columbia Journalism Review
Two clarifications, up front. First, I asked for it. In 1975 I retired early from the CIA to found the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), a group of men and women from the various intelligence agencies. As a result of the lecturing and writing that I did at this time, and of a number of appearances on television, I became a public figure. An advocate of a strong intelligence capability during a time of emotional debate on the subject, I thrust myself, in the words of Justice Powell in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., into the forefront of a public controversy.
Next, these activities were frequent and highly visible. They included appearances on all major U.S. television networks, on 60 Minutes, on British and French television; lecturing across the country; and writing a book on my CIA experiences. The point here is to indicate that as a public spokesman in the intelligence arena I have been easy to locate. My home and office telephone numbers have been listed in the phone book. In short, I have not been hiding out.
Those points made, I submit a sequence of events that should make some members of the Fourth Estate reexamine their concept of professional ethics.
In May of 1980 a book titled Conspiracy, by Anthony Summers, was published by Gollancz in London. The book invited, indeed pressed, the reader to believe that during my CIA service I used the pseudonym "Maurice Bishop" (which I did not) and that I met Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas shortly before the assassination of John F. Kennedy (which I did not). The Summers conspiracy theory was fleshed out on bones of speculation provided to the British writer by Gaeton Fonzi, an investigative journalist turned government investigator for the Senate probe into the Kennedy assassination in 1975-76; he was again an investigator in 1978-79 with the House Select Committee on Assassinations. When Conspiracy was published in England a page of excerpts dedicated to the proposition that I was Maurice Bishop was published by the London Observer.
In the acknowledgements of his book, Summers thanked half a dozen people he interviewed during research in the Washington, D.C., area, where I live. Although any of those he interviewed could have provided my address and telephone number to Summers, he didn't contact me. Nor did the editors of his book when it was published in England. I heard nothing from The Observer, which maintains a bureau in Washington, D.C., before that newspaper repeated the libel.
If some in the British press were guilty of questionable journalism by not offering me a chance to comment, their transgressions were mild when compared with the irresponsibility of a larger number of U.S. media who picked up the story and embellished it in subsequent years.
McGraw-Hill published the American edition of Conspiracy in early June of 1980. No one at that respected house offered me the chance to comment on the charges. Nor did Summers, despite my public challenge to him before the publication of the American edition.
In mid-1980 I was accused of involvement in another political assassination.
On June 25, 1980, a press conference was held in Washington, D.C. It had been convened by one Dr. William F. Pepper, introduced as a distinguished lawyer, psychologist, and educator. The purpose of the conference was to announce that I and other individuals had manipulated several groups, particularly the AFIO, in a cover-up after the murder of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976. One specific charge was that I had purloined documents from Letelier's briefcase and, after rewriting them for disinformation purposes, distributed them to the world press. That allegation had first been made by Saul Landau, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Now the allegation became a detailed denunciation of me, and a demand that I be prosecuted by the Department of Justice. Two freelance journalists, Donald Freed and Fred Landis, spoke at the press conference. Lawrence Hill, a book publisher, attended but did not speak.
I did not attend the press conference, being unaware that I was going to be the subject of it. I certainly did not suspect that the charges would form the basis of a book.
After retiring from the CIA, I had begun to write for a number of periodicals. One was Washingtonian magazine. Usually I worked directly with editor John A. Limpert; this relationship became personal when Limpert invited me and my wife to his home. In 1979 Limpert commissioned me to write an article on intelligence nonfiction literature and, in early 1980, another on hostage situations. Later that year Limpert asked me to submit an essay on espionage fiction.
Shortly after Conspiracy appeared in the U.S., I wrote to Limpert, telling him that I was going to miss my deadline for the espionage fiction piece. The reason was that I was so agitated about Summers's allegations in Conspiracy that I was "Maurice Bishop" and, using that pseudonym, had been somehow involved in Kennedy's death, that I found it difficult to concentrate on my writing.
No problem, Limpert responded in a letter a few days later. "I can understand that deadline problem," he wrote. "Hope things clear up for you." The letter also stated that the espionage fiction project was not being assigned to another writer.
On October 15, I wrote to advise Limpert that I was ready to write again, should he still be interested in the essay. While I waited for his response, the November issue of Washingtonian came off the press and advance copies were distributed to the media on October 24. The cover story in that issue bore the title "Who Killed JFK?" The magazine article, repeat magazine article, ran to more than 80,000 words. In pursuing the question of who assassinated John F. Kennedy, the article invoked the name of Lee Harvey Oswald about 100 times. It mentioned my name more than 300 times. There was one photograph of Oswald. There were four different photographs of me and two reproductions of a composite sketch of "Maurice Bishop." The reader was invited to compare the drawings with photographs of me.
Jack Limpert did ask for my comments -- after the story was published and on the wires of UPI and the AP. The 80,000 words had been written by Gaeton Fonzi, once again a journalist. He had not sought my reaction. Later, Limpert responded to a query about why I was not allowed to comment by saying that Fonzi had in the past "talked with Mr. Phillips." That was true, as far as it went. But Fonzi had not spoken to me in his capacity as a journalist. He had interrogated me for several hours as a government investigator on two occasions -- in 1976 and 1979; in both instances I volunteered to answer his questions.
I declined Limpert's invitation to comment in the next month's issue of Washingtonian on the advice of counsel. I had decided to sue for libel. The case was dismissed by three lower courts and the Maryland Court of Appeals. I was clearly a public figure and would be unlikely to be able to prove malice.
The ink was hardly dry on the ream of accusations in Washingtonian when Lawrence Hill & Company of Westport, Connecticut, published a book called Death in Washington, written by Donald Freed and Fred Landis. In addition to the charges that I was an accessory before and after the fact in the Letelier assassination, the book repeated the "Maurice Bishop" fantasy. A photograph of me was captioned "The Other Lee Harvey Oswald." Neither of the co-authors had queried me, nor had Dr. William F. Pepper, who wrote the preface. Publisher Hill had not asked for my comments, nor had his editor.
This time, however, a legal effort prevailed. On February 14, 1986, after almost five years of litigation, my libel suit was settled when co-authors Freed and Landis submitted a statement of retraction to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Publisher Hill also signed the statement. Dr. William F. Pepper did not -- that worthy had slipped out of sight, having eluded for four years all efforts by private investigators to locate him. (The 1980 press conference demand for a Justice Department investigation was on Dr. Pepper's stationery, with letterhead addresses and telephone numbers in New York and Rhode Island. By the time I began calling, the telephones had been disconnected. I still don't know where the elusive Dr. Pepper is.)
The settlement involved a financial payment to me and, with the agreement of the defendants, a full-page publication of the statement of retraction in Publishers Weekly.
It was a satisfying development, but there was more to come.
In November 1985, I saw the uncorrected galleys of a new book about the Kennedy assassination. Reasonable Doubt, by Henry Hurt, had initially been a Reader's Digest project; when the Digest abandoned the book, it was purchased by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston (now Henry Holt and Company).
I flipped through the galleys. There it was: the "Maurice Bishop" yarn had been resurrected.
On November 27, 1985, I wrote the author and, at Henry Holt, the president and the editors involved. Could I have 2,000 words somewhere in the book to refute the allegations? On January 8, 1986, I heard from W. Mallory Rintoul, Esquire, general counsel for Henry Holt. Sorry, the book had gone to press.
In February I wrote to the lawyer. If the book has gone to press, might I have the opportunity to provide 2,000 words of refutation in any future edition?
In March, Henry Holt's lawyer responded: No. And Mr. Rintoul continued his letter with a legal lecture in which he admonished me that "you are subject to the public official/public figure doctrine established under the New York Times case and its progeny."
In my reply to that stern reminder I conceded that I was a public official. I offered to sign a legal document prepared by Mr. Rintoul promising that I would never sue anyone connected with Reasonable Doubt. Having signed such a pledge, could I then have my 2,000 words in any subsequent printing?
That letter, according to the Post Office, was received in New York on March 21, 1986. There has been no reply as I write this, more than six months later. On the other hand, there was some good news from abroad. On October 7, 1986, the High Court in London announced the resolution of my libel suit against The Observer: the weekly agreed to retract Anthony Summers's allegations that I had been Lee Harvey Oswald's CIA contact and to pay me a substantial sum in damages.
Although such long-fought-for victories are cheering indeed, the overall pattern of journalistic behavior is depressing. It certainly depresses me. And I suspect it will not induce a state of euphoria in the vast majority of journalists who do give people they write about a fair shake. Then why this jeremiad? I suppose it is because I feel the need to express some righteous indignation to an audience of professionals.
I certainly don't suggest any legislative action that would inhibit the free and robust discussion of public issues and public officials. But I do believe it is inexcusable that a few journalists and authors should conclude that they can libel -- and, later, on talk shows defame -- victims of their allegations without being called to account. Whatever happened to the Sigma Delta Chi Code of Ethics and its "The news media should not communicate unofficial charges affecting reputation or moral character without giving the accused a chance to reply"? How can there be robust discussion unless there is more than one party to the discussion? What excuse can there be for journalism that hangs a man without allowing him to speak in his own defense?
David Atlee Phillips was editor and publisher of The South Pacific Mail, in Santiago, Chile, when he was recruited by the CIA in 1950. He served with the agency for twenty-five years; at retirement he was chief of Latin American and Caribbean Operations.
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